Poetry, Punk, and Reporting

To overstate the influence of punk culture on my little life is not possible. Through BMX and skateboarding I absorbed the do-it-yourself, damn-the-man attitude of punk rock. I got to the music a little late, but Minor Threat, 7Seconds, Naked Raygun, and others made me think about things differently. Way differently. It’s the music, to be sure, but it’s so much more than that. Talking about it feels corny and writing about it feels worse, but these three books explore it well and in three very different ways.

If it weren’t for my early zine-making and review-writing, I might never have become a writer. Gerfried Ambrosh might say the same thing. His doctoral dissertation is now a book. The Poetry of Punk (Routledge, 2018) is a vivisection of the deep tissue of the language of punk rock. Poetry is certainly not the first thing associated with punk as a genre, but lyrical meaning is as important as any other aspect of the music. Traditionally punk is protest music, so the angry vocals carry lyrics that were often written with rhetorical intent. The Poetry of Punk is the product of experience, extensive research, and several dozen interviews with punk lyricists of all sorts.

“Punk is about making a statement,” Ambrosh contends. Having been in many hardcore punk bands himself (e.g., Carnist, Momentum, etc.), he knows.

Punk has given me a lot of friends I’ve known only through the mail or online. I’ve been in touch with Gerfried for a few years, and I’ve been getting mail from Jessica Hopper since my own zine days. Hers is a name I’ve known for over 25 years. I still remember the first flier for her publicity company I got, with the name spelled out in Scrabble tiles. She’s since written about everyone who matters for everyone who matters, a lot of which is compiled in her last book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof, 2015).

In her latest, Night Moves (University of Texas Press, 2018), Hopper gets more poetic, more personal, and more autobiographical than ever before. Described as a love letter to Chicago, Night Moves chronicles Hopper’s punk rock nights in the city, riding bikes to shows, watching the times and the neighborhoods change. It’s part memoir, part autoethnography, part urban study, Night Moves is not all about Chicago, but the city’s shadow is on all of these pages. I currently live in the area where the majority of the book takes place, so it’s not only fun to read an old friend’s stories but also to be familiar with the streets, corners, and clubs she’s writing about (See map).

Here’s an excerpt from a St. Vincent show on April 14, 2007:

The people in front and in back of us, older daters; others, proactively tweemo. But next to us, boy-girl braces-faces on a giddy date. Then five drunk douches filled out the rest of our row. When Annie came on stage in her wrinkly school uniform via Balenciaga hot-ensemb, the show-talkers, who were obviously “in their cups” as they used to say, were yakking loud like they were trying to be heard over the sound of the Green Line train pulling into the station. One of the guys yelled in Borat-voice “I Like!,” and someone else wolf-whistled. Annie did not blink, she just pile-drove some din and some fancy-free hammer-on into our faces.

Unlike Gerfried Ambrosh and Jessica Hopper, Les Hinton came up in the old-school newspaper trade. A contemporary of Rupert Murdoch, Hinton spent 50 years as a reporter. In turn, An Untidy Life (Scribe, 2018) reports on reporting, digging further into not just the news but the newsmakers, from the Beatles to the Clintons, from Bob Dylan to Princess Diana. Almost all of Hinton’s stories contain era-defining events, the kind of media moments every writer waits for, looks for, longs for. Among many other things, Hinton describes the night he had a beer with Sid Vicious in Memphis, another where he went to CBGB’s with Johnny Rotten and unknowingly chatted up Johnny Ramone, and the morning he arrived in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea just as Vicious was being carted out, cuffed under suspicion of stabbing Nancy Spungen, whose dead body was upstairs in his bathroom. An Untidy Life isn’t all punk-rock dive bars and dishing dirt, but the stories are all told from the front row.

If it weren’t for punk, I don’t know who I’d be. If it weren’t for writing, I don’t know who I’d be either. One is about as important as the other. In very different ways, these three books illustrate that over and over again.